'The Triumph of Caerus'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—pilots and members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and SOE, Special Operations Executive,—find themselves transporting important passengers to a sensitive destination.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
"One thousand seven hundred and sixty-four miles."
"In one go? One single non-stop flight?"
"How d'we do that, exactly?"
"They're gon'na issue us with a special plane."
"Oh, yeah; Sinbad's Magic Carpet, Mark Four, no doubt."
"Come on, Gabrielle, would they ask us t'do it, if it couldn't be done?"
"That bloody maniac down in Somerset House would, easily."
"Group-Captain Graham may have his, er, moments of, er,—"
"Idiocy? Mania? Outright insanity?" The blonde pilot sneered, with malicious intent. "How can we, or anyone else, fly twenty people and a bucket load of cargo seventeen hundred miles, without stopping to refuel? Hell, Ricky, even you must see that's impossible."
"Well, we'll find out in about two minutes." The dark-haired New Zealander shrugged heavily; arguing with Gabrielle always being a tiring business. "It's just about time for the latest radio report from London t'come through on the short-wave."
This dull evening of Thursday 4th November 1943 found the two erstwhile members of the Air Transport Auxiliary, actually members of the ultra-secret SOE, Special Operations Executive, standing by the low desk to the rear of their Nissen hut which sat in a quiet corner of Base J Scapa Flow, Orkney Mainland. Outside a strong breeze was blowing steadily, accompanied by heavy intermittent rain showers; the usual local weather, in fact. Inside they had been sitting at their large deal table arguing about the earlier message they had received the evening before. Its contents being the basis of Gabrielle's determined unbelief, and Claire's struggle to bring light out of dark chaos.
Gabrielle was on duty today as radio-operator, so had already sat unwillingly at the receiver with pencil and notepad to hand. Claire stood beside her, one hand resting on the back of Gabrielle's chair. In another minute, while the blonde airwoman was idly doodling, the radio sprang to life with a few preliminary whines and curious wind-like moans. The incoming message was long, in Morse code of such esoteric nature Gabrielle would have to refer to her handy Code-For-The-Day-Book, itself highly Top Secret, to de-code it. After the message ended, in its usual peremptory way with no pleasant sign-off from the distant sender, Gabrielle took another five minutes to decode the communication, which she then read out in her fine tenor.
"Top Secret. For Team K's eyes only. PMM, Room 23, Somerset House. London.
Herein instructions for Operation Rapidity. As you know British Naval and other military forces have taken over, on lease from Portugal, the Azore Islands in the North Atlantic. An intermediate airfield is in course of construction, allowing easier access between Europe and America. This action has taken place under the title Operation Alacrity.
Skylark unit is ordered to transport twenty (20) personnel from Foynes, Shannon, Ireland, to Terceira, Azores. Departure Scapa Flow 9.15 ack-emma 6th November 1943. Transport unit Short Bros Empire Flying Boat C30M Mark III 'Caerus'. Designated pilot to be Plover. Unit has enlarged fuel tanks, giving range of 2,120 miles; and has full defensive armament, for which pre-selected crew will be picked up at Foynes—password 'Limehouse Blues'. Arrival of unit at Scapa Flow 4.30 pip-emma 5th November 1943.
Team K will await further orders from PMM, HQ, on arrival at Terciera; or take orders from OC (Officer Commanding) Terceira as and when required. Message ends. Big Red."
"God, now I know, I wish I didn't know." Gabrielle sat back to contemplate the evidence of her labour. "Plover; that's you, babe. This must be the first fruits of your passing on four-engined aircraft a few weeks ago. Had any experience on Empires?"
"Ya know dam' well I haven't." Claire took revenge by ruffling her interrogator's blonde hair with a rough hand, which elicited a squeal of resentment. "Hah, what was that y'just called me? I do so hope I heard wrong, little lady."
"Whatever; anyway, can y'get t'grips with a bloody great Empire in less than a day?"
"I can but try." Claire stood back as Gabrielle rose to her feet and walked over to the larger table, where steaming mugs of cocoa awaited. "I did have a few bump and runs in a Sunderland, down in Lincolnshire. It was pretty hairy at first; but eventually I got the hang o'the thing. Well, the instructor finally stopped screaming in fear every time I approached the sea surface t'land—so I took it I was improving."
"Oh God. Got any rum, t'put in this cocoa?"
The gigantic, for it was indeed huge, flying-boat sat on the choppy waters of Scapa Flow looking so very much like a beached whale both Claire and Gabrielle had the strange feeling an old square-rigged whaler might easily appear at any moment out of the mists of Clestrain Sound to claim its prize. The Short Empire S30 Mark III was much the same size as the later designed Sunderland, but had a far more imposing presence. It seemed heavier, primarily because of its enclosed nose cockpit which was set flush with the curved fuselage; giving the plane a massive bulky appearance. Its completely straight sides, rising vertically from the water, also gave a somewhat false impression of great height. This particular example seemed to have undergone all the possible renovations that modern necessity demanded; dorsal four-gun turret; rear four-gun turret, immediately under the tail rudder; and two side positions for single Browning machine-guns. There were also racks under each wing for bombs, empty at the present time. Hidden from view, in wings and the lower central fuselage section, were enough fuel tanks to guarantee a range of something approaching two thousand miles. The fact that it was destined to carry twenty passengers, as well as its full eleven crew, along with approximately ten thousand pounds weight of cargo was what exercised the minds of the two main crew-members as they stood on the concrete ramp at the edge of the Flow contemplating their latest acquisition.
"D'you like it, Ricky?"
"Like it? Wha'd'ya mean?"
"Will you manage something this huge." The blonde looked dubiously over the intervening thirty yards of water. "Looks about twice the size, an' weight, of the Sunderlands I've flown. I don't envy you, that's for sure."
"Huh. Don't imagine for a minute I'm gon'na fly the beast all the way t'the Azores single-handedly." The black-haired warrior shook her head knowingly. "Halfway through I'll be skippin' out for a snooze, an' leavin' ya to it, girl."
"Oh, thanks a million."
"Well, here comes the motor-launch. Guess we'll just hav'ta get on out to it, an' see what we can do with the thing." Claire grunted dismissively. "Any ships in the way of take-off?"
"Oh, yeah? On what, dearie?"
"On whether you'll need quarter of a mile t'unstick this lady; or something more in the way of the whole length o'the Flow." Gabrielle paused to run a hand through her blonde hair, smirking the while. "My money's on the latter."
"God. Y'just can't get good help these days. Wait'll we get back, lady, I'll have somethin' for ya then."
"Whoo. Promises. Come on, here's Sergeant MacQuarrie with our transport; you climb in first; I'll be behind t'see you don't fall in the drink."
They had flown over the larger part of Scotland without incident; had passed the islands of Jura and Islay on their port side; and were now crossing the northern coast of Ireland, well on their way to the first port of call in Moynes, Shannon, County Clare. Though lacking any suitable length of training time Ricky was pretty well comfortable with the huge four-engined plane; it flying level and uneventfully. Apart from the two women the only other crew-member present was the navigator; the rest awaiting their arrival at Moynes. The nature of their prospective passengers was still a mystery to them, and some interesting discussion had been taking place in the cockpit around this, and other un-related topics.
"—'Caerus', wasn't she the Goddess of dance and singing back in ancient Greece?" Gabrielle, sitting in the co-pilot's seat but not hindered by navigational duties, was at a loose end. "Fancy I read that somewhere."
"I kind'a don't think so. Rather fancy she was a he, in fact." Claire, on the other hand, was grimly sitting straight-backed; holding the steering-wheel with icy determination, all senses focussed on reading her instruments; feeling the flow of the aircraft through her body, and praying nothing untoward was going to occur. "Jeesus. D'ya realise y'can feel how heavy this dam' plane is, in your bones? 'Caerus'? Nah, she-he wasn't the dancing music Goddess. That was somebody else, can't remember who at the moment. Y'might'a noticed I got other things on my mind."
"No? Oh well, must'a been someone else then, like you say." Gabrielle was unperturbed. "All the same, wonder who she was?"
"-'Caerus', who else? I mean, she must'a been someone important; a Goddess, I mean."
"Jeez, will ya get off this Goddess thing; I keep tellin' ya he was a he, not a she." Claire shook her head despairingly. "There were hundreds o'such back in those days. Hell, every second Greek ya bumped into always turned out t'be a God of some kind, if I remember my school-reading properly. Anyway, I got other things t'concentrate on. How's about giving the fuel gauges the once over; just'a give me some idea of when this wreck's gon'na fall out'ta the sky into the briny."
Gabrielle scowled good-naturedly, leaning forward to glance at the dials, copying the readings in her notebook.
"We took on so much extra fuel before leaving Scapa, as you well know—from various naval stockpiles an' emergency tanks—that some o'the ships at anchor, that battleship for instance, were sitting a good three inches higher in the water than before." She snorted contemptuously. "This ain't an aeroplane, sister, it's a flying fuel tank; with most of Scapa's monthly ration sittin' under our feet, or out in the wings. For God's sake don't strike a match. Don't you smell it? That funny lung-catchin' aroma permeating everywhere."
"Don't worry, these huge Perseus engines'll soon drink it all up." Claire grunted mirthlessly, as a point of interest came to her. "Ever thought about all these Greek mythological references we always seem t'meet, in the bloody air-force. Names of engines; names of planes; names of operations; always based on something ancient Greek. Why's that, d'ya suppose? Somethin' t'do with our Karma, or what?"
"Karma? Karma?" Gabrielle put a hand up to adjust her flying-helmet. "What have you been reading, when I haven't been around t'prevent you? Anyway, the answer's easy."
"Oh yeah, well do tell, ducks."
"Oxford an' Cambridge."
"Most o'these high-ranking officers—in all three services—probably went to the old Universities; y'know, Oxford an' Cambridge." Gabrielle knew when she was on a winner, grinning as she spoke. "Had the Classics thrust down their throats, in the way of fancy education, whether they wanted it or not. Result, whenever somethin' needs a new name in the Forces they all trot out the relevant Classical allusions; they can't help it y'see, poor sods."
"Ha. Y'make 'em sound like trained seals, or elephants, in a circus." Ricky laughed again. "Not that any o'them would like t'be told that, I'm sure. Anyway, t'change the subject, when'll we be hittin' Moynes?"
"—Hittin', in the metaphorical sense, I'm hopin', eh?" Gabrielle liked her little joke at moments of tension, and other times too. "Let's see, I got'ta confer with my assistant, hang on."
She fiddled with the small switch on her flying-helmet mouthpiece, cutting into the intercom.
"Hi'ya, Jocelyn, y'awake?"
"Yes, ma'am. Need a course adjustment? We're pretty well on course, as it is, I'm sure."
The sergeant-navigator, Jocelyn Pangton, was a young twenty-one year old Home Counties escapee, having joined up as a volunteer at the outbreak of hostilities. He was the star of his unit's football team, and spent most of his enlisted time trying unsuccessfully to downplay the fact his mother was a famous detective-story author.
"Just want a time check; arrival at Moynes, please."
"Oh, that'll be in, lem'me see, twenty-three minutes, ma'am."
"Fine, thanks. Get that, Ricky?"
"Yeah. Just time enough for me t'start worryin' about landing this great whale."
"Hah. Nothin' like havin' a positive outlook, I always say."
The water in the Shannon Estuary, on the south-west coast of Ireland, was calm; the estuary affording a long wide expanse for flying-boats to land and take-off. This fact having contributed to the busy terminal, linked to the small village of Moynes on the south bank, where such planes fuelled before setting off for destinations in Africa or even across the Atlantic to America. It had been a fairly active passenger airport before the outbreak of hostilities, and was now an important and equally busy RAF station.
Thankful for the large extent of empty water Ricky brought the Empire down in a long controlled descent; levelled-off fifty feet above the grey water; and then gently eased it in to a smooth landing, some way from shore. This being the usual system, as a fleet of large motor-boats were always on hand to safely transfer cargo and passengers to terra-firma.
"Should I switch off, now?"
"Not quite yet." Gabrielle had swiftly figured out the likely set-up unrolling around them. "See that round bright-red metal buoy thirty yards to starboard? We need'ta hook-up to it. If you steer us close, I'll go down t'the bow chamber, open up the port, an' use our anchoring-hook to tie-off. Then y'can switch the engines off. OK?"
Five minutes later this delicate manouevre had been safely completed, and Gabrielle had returned to the flight-cabin.
"Here comes the fleet; those three launches headin' out from shore over there."
"I see 'em. What's that bigger boat, with the funnel, followin' 'em? Seems t'be headin' our way too."
"That, darlin', will be the refuelling lighter." If anyone had all the relevant facts at their fingertips, that one would always be Gabrielle. "Their crew'll be swarming all over your wings in a short time, fillin' the tanks t'capacity."
"An' it'll have t'be capacity." Claire knew what was needed in this unfolding affair. "We'll need every dam' drop, t'reach the bloody Azores. What right, anyway, have they t'be stuck right out in the dam' middle o'nowhere in the centre o'the bloody Atlantic?"
"Don't get cross, dear; they're just there, that's all, nothin' t'be done about it."
"Except hope we can reach the dam' place. Humph."
All worked out as the blonde co-pilot had suggested. For the next hour a small army of Irish salts, all characters in their own right, clambered like bees all over the huge wings; opening fuel valves, clipping on long ungainly fuel pipes, and walking casually about on the top of the gently bobbing wings as if they were strolling in the village square.
While all this was going forward the motor-boats were unloading their human cargoes. One boat brought the extra flight-crew, while the other contained the military personnel. The new crew members were a mixed lot, as Gabrielle soon found while trying to instil a sense of importance and discipline into their arrival. First was the engineer who, they had been led to believe, would have every estoric detail of the Empire flying-boat's innards filed away mentally for instant reference. It turning out, however, that he was a virtually newly inducted National Serviceman, with six months electrical training at Southampton; and no experience whatever of any kind of flying-boat. The radio-operator was rather better, having just under a year's experience. The other four men were all gunners, and could therefore be said to be unskilled labour. One for the four-barrel Browning machine-guns in the top dorsal turret; one in the rear-turret squeezed right under the lower edge of the huge tail, with another four Brownings; and two, each with a single Browning, firing from ports on either side of the plane's waist to the rear of the wing-roots. Though the plane was fitted with bomb-racks under the wings these, for obvious weight reasons, remained empty.
The military personnel—the ever-so-secret passengers—were an altogether different kettle of fish; as Claire soon found out when she left the flight-deck to clamber down the internal stairs to the lower deck where the entrance door was located. The whole tone of the experience was set when she found the first passenger to step into the flying-boat was a fully-uniformed Army General, followed by no less than a Rear-Admiral in his glorious uniform; not to be outdone the third arrival showed himself to be an RAF Air Commodore. All this, of course, necessitating an absolute orgy of saluting on Flying-Officer Mathews part. The remainder of the group turning out to be a general mess of Lieutenants from all three Services. Thankfully the Empire was large enough to allow of placing all these in comfortable quarters, in a variety of newly renovated cabins, saloons, and other compartments.
Back on the flight-deck, separated from the radio/navigator's nook by a partition, Claire was again getting to grips with the massive flying-boat as Gabrielle once more joined her. Just over an hour had passed, with the fuel-riggers banging about the upper deck inside the fuselage to the rear of the plane as well as on top of the mighty wing, while the multitude of military people sorted themselves out in the spartan but comfortable saloons. Gabrielle had just been on a tour to see everyone cosily ensconced; she finding the necessity to continually salute virtually anyone she met a chore at best. Finally she had made it back to the relative privacy and safety of the flight-deck.
"Jeez, what a crowd, worse than Derby Day at Epsom." She settled herself in the co-pilot's seat on the right-hand side of the wide cockpit, glancing at her companion. "How goes it?"
"Tickety-boo, old girl; just tickety-boo, thanks ever so."
"If that's meant t'be a cultured English accent, dear, I got'ta tell you it's a failure, by a mile. So, what's up?"
"Well, I've been recording the fuel gauges, in your absence." The overworked pilot pretended to sneer, unsuccessfully. "We're topped up t'the gills with petrol now. If ya wan'na refill your cigarette lighter just flip the top open, hold it in the air for thirty seconds, then shut it again. The fumes in the air'll keep it working for the next three days. Smell it?"
"Yeah, can't smell anythin' else, baby." Gabrielle settled in her seat. "I had t'collar one of those spare Lieutenants, wanderin' around like lost souls, an' tell him smoking was banned for the duration; he wasn't happy."
"Y'know we got every possible variety of fancy brasshat on board t'day?"
"The fact had not escaped my attention, yeah."
"God knows what they're gon'na find t'do in the wilds of the Azores; in the middle of the Atlantic." Gabrielle snorted in disgust; then brightened a trifle. "Mind you, it's probably the best place for 'em, when you think about it—keeps the dears out'ta trouble, I suppose. Probably a personal initiative by Churchill, t'give himself more elbow room t'win the war quicker."
"Ha-Ha. Y'could be right, there, babe." Claire, though caught up in the intricacies of controlling the mighty aeroplane, still had time to laugh at this ludicrous suggestion. "Winnie, in his war-bunker somewhere under the pavements of Whitehall, sending all those annoyin' generals an' whatnot t'the ends o'the earth out'ta his way. Yeah, I can see the ol' dear comin' up with somethin' like that. An' who's t'say he's wrong?"
Eventually the squadron of roughly-clothed men, all sporting flat caps in various stages of decrepitude, clambering over the giant wing of the flying-boat decided to call it a day, their work concluded, and retreated to the fuelling tender bobbing alongside. The spare gunners, making themselves useful under Gabrielle's orders, closed the entrance doors; checked that everything that should be closed or sealed actually was so; then, the brasshats having been politely told to sit down and not make a nuisance of themselves for a few minutes, the great plane raced across the wide estuary, leaving a white wake behind it.
This exit from Irish Home waters was not made any easier by the arrival of a squally rainstorm, cutting off all view of either side of the wide bay. The accompanying blustery wind had quickly raised a line of short snappy waves, white spume lifting off their crests in the wind. The subsequent take-off, though never in any danger, was by no means the smooth run that might have been anticipated. There was a great deal of rocking and bouncing; crashing noises from all over the plane could be distinctly heard by the passengers as various areas took the strain as the aircraft bounced across the surface—now apparently made up of two foot high concrete ridges with sharp edges. Some of the brasshats began to understand, perhaps for the first time, exactly what the meaning of mortality truly was; while others coped by the simple expedient of swearing foully at each recurring bump, and telling the nearest Lieutenant to go to Blazes.
"This'll sort the men from the boys." Gabrielle, not clutching the steering-column with white knuckles and leaning forward in narrow-eyed concentration as her black-haired companion was, took the wide view. "The General'll just be lookin' disgusted; the Rear-Admiral'll be sayin' he's seen worse in the Bay; an' the Air Commodore'll be sniggering an' tellin' 'em both how delightful it'll be, once we've gained some height an' levelled off."
"F-ck this dam' machine; f-ck these goddam engines, ain't they got any power at all?; an' f-ck those bloody brasshats, what bloody good are they in a storm." Ricky was under pressure, and wasn't listening. "Any sign o'the b-tch goin' up on the step yet?"
"If the old lady'd pulled up on the step, wouldn't you have noticed, dear." Gabrielle eased the strain of the moment by a shrug of her shoulders, though her thick flying-jacket concealed this entirely. "Give the engines some more juice, that'll bring the nose up."
"Oh, thanks very much for that brilliant professional suggestion. Oh-Oh, wait a minute—here she goes; an' not before time, we're running out'ta water; another hundred an' fifty yards, an' we'll be scraping our keel over the Irish mainland. Urrph, here we go."
The nose of the enormous flying-boat came up out of the water; the wide view of the white-capped sea was changed for that of a grey gloomy overcast; then came, the plane now coasting on the lower step of its dual angled keel, a pause of relative calmness before, the engines finally embracing the necessary power, the nose rose further and the plane left the embrace of the choppy water to rise into the sky in a long shallow climb.
The difference was spectacular; from a ride on a fairground bumper-car to a smooth comfortable glide. A general sense of relief that was almost palpable emanated from the two main saloons, as the officials and officers raised their several hats to mop their brows. The next battle swiftly commenced, however, when these same officers—of immensely exalted ranks, almost equaling Gods—found out that no, they would not be allowed to smoke cigarettes or pipes for the flight's duration. This, of course, only caused an outbreak of imprecation and vulgar language so comprehensive, and couched in so many languages, it was a honour to the Empire, if nothing else.
"Nicely done, doll." Gabrielle favoured the concept of congratulations where such were due. "Fine bit of piloting; bit hairy all round, but you pulled through well."
"Thanks, I'm sure." Claire accompanied this remark with a grin at her co-pilot, as she sat back and relaxed her grip on the steering-column. "God, I don't wan'na do that often. This beast's a beast t'fly. If only someone had told me, I'd'a let you take control for the trip, youngster."
"Ha-Ha. My turn'll come." Gabrielle now made movements to pull herself out of her seat, squirming around in the tight space. "Suppose I better go back and meet the royalty; keep 'em happy, if I can. See you later. If you need a course correction while I'm gone, Jocelyn'll be at your elbow on the intercom."
The forward saloon was on the lower deck, reached from the cockpit by going down a vertical ladder opposite the navigator's cubicle and just beside the radio-operator's desk. This led below to the mooring-compartment in the bow of the aircraft, from where a locked door led into the front saloon. The second, main, saloon lay further along in the body of the plane at the end of a short corridor. Going into the forward saloon Gabrielle was immediately met by a blast of offensive epithets that would have done a Wapping longshoreman proud. The General was on the warpath.
"Ha, one of the flight-crew, at last. Dam' my eyes, a bloody woman. You—yes you, madam, where's the pilot? An' just who the bloody hell are you, anyway?"
Gabrielle paused in her stride; looked the seated uniformed and red-faced man up and down with a curious gleam in her eye; saluted punctiliously; then let rip.
"Good morning, General." Her tone was reserved, with a cold edge just stopping short of pure glacial. "I'm Flying-Officer Gabrielle Parker; I'm the co-pilot on this trip, along with my pilot, Flying-Officer Claire Mathews. We're both members of the Special Operations Executive; and have authority from our main HQ in London—authority which has emanated this time around from the top of the tree, if you catch my meaning, General. I and my pilot are in charge of this flight and, notwithstanding your rank, sir,—what we say goes. So, if you don't mind—and even if you do—I'd like no further outbursts of foul language, if you please. Nor will there be any objections, or opposition, to either myself or my pilot pursuing this flight in any manner we choose. If you do have any objections I suggest you write them down, acting politely in the meantime, and present them to Mr Churchill in person on your return. I may say, sir, I rather fancy your reception will be frosty in the extreme. Do I make myself clear? Thank you, I'm off to regale the other officers with the same sermon; so don't think you're being singled out for exceptional treatment. If you have any reasonable requests, I'm sure the uniformed soldiers—gunners, by the way, here to protect you—will see to your comfort; if addressed politely, that is. Just remember your rank doesn't go for anything here, on this particular flight; not until we land in the Azores. Goodbye, nice meeting you, sir."
On Gabrielle's return to the flight-deck she entered tight-lipped, serious, and with no sign of the milk of human kindness emanating from her personality. Claire noticed after one quick glance.
"What's with the gloom." She swivelled in her seat, loosening her grip on the steering-column in order to turn. "Is your face purfled o'er with the pale cast of thought? It is, isn't it? So, what's up? The Generals an' whatnot's bein' mean an' nasty?"
"Too dam' right." The blonde settled back in her seat, fiddling with her intercom lead. "About as morose a bunch o'losers as I've ever run across. That notion you had earlier, about Winnie sending 'em into exile; well, it don't seem so unlikely now, sis."
"Hullo, Jocelyn, how're we doin'?"
"On course, ma'am." The navigator's voice came crackling tinnily through the women's earphones, as if from a vast distance. "But, o'course, we've only just started. Another thirteen hundred miles t'go, yet."
"Christ." Gabrielle heaved a sigh. "Give us a report every two hundred miles, OK?"
"Yes, ma'am, position every two hundred miles it is."
Gabrielle snorted grumpily under her breath as she repositioned herself in her seat.
"What's our speed?"
"Ho, y're very impetuous t'day, darlin'."
"Sorry," Gabrielle sat back and grinned at her lover. "Those dam' brasshats gettin' on top o'me. OK, deep breaths—deep breaths. Aah, that's better. So, dear love of my heart,—don't worry, the main intercom's switched off—how fast are you transporting this machine an' its mortal contents t'the exotic Azores? If it ain't any trouble, dearest."
Claire shook her head and grinned in response, knowing full well this was merely Gabrielle's way of dealing with the tension.
"Well, lem'me see, where's the speedometer?" She joined in with the silly attitude, glancing around her control panel as if seeing it for the first time. "Oh, there it is. So, what's it sayin'? Blow me, a hundred and eighty; whoever knew a plane could go so fast, my, my."
"Idiot, I only asked."
An hour later Gabrielle leaned forward, glancing through her side-window as well as the main windscreen.
"Nuthin' but grey overcast down there now. Only rollin' billows o'cloud cover, like a different kind'a sea. Can't see any sign o'the ocean at all, anywhere. Bloody Atlantic."
"We're at twelve thousand feet." Claire inclined her head a trifle, pursing her lips. "At least we're above the bloody stuff. Anyway, this height allows the engines t'run smoother; less fuel intake—that can't be bad."
"Dam' straight, we need every drop as it is."
"Don't worry, we took on enough t'get us t'bloody Bermuda, if need be." Claire took a positive attitude. "Or almost, anyway. Wan'na go an' blight the lives o'the passengers again; take y're mind off how well I'm flyin' this wreck."
"Huh, it's an idea, mind you." Gabrielle, wriggling around in her seat, started unbuckling straps and wires. "Dam', I think I broke the bloody intercom lead. Shit. No, wait a minute—no, it's OK. God, what a tight squeeze it is aroun' here, wires an' things every-bloody-where. OK, I'm off, see ya later."
"Send me a postcard on your travels." Claire sniggered quietly. "Preferably one o'those naughty cartoon ones, I like 'em."
"Sheesh, what a gal."
On her way back Gabrielle nodded affably at Jocelyn, in his little alcove behind the cockpit, and the anonymous young radio-operator on the other side of the wide cabin sitting with earphones on by his bank of dials; again clambered down the ladder leading to the lower deck, then went through the door leading into the forward saloon. The General, looking just as miserable, was still in sole occupation vis-à-vis his equals; though now engaged with a young Lieutenant going through a mass of documents on the small table. He looked up as the co-pilot passed by but did not offer any recognition.
Gabrielle's reception, on entering the main saloon towards the middle of the plane, was no warmer. She had earlier given these high-ranking officers the same lecture received by the disconsolate General—and they had not taken it any more favorably. At least no-one was smoking; they obviously not being so stupid as that, the lung-catching reek of raw petrol still permeating through the whole aircraft like a London fog.
"Hallo, gentlemen." She favoured the Air Commodore and Rear-Admiral with a warm smile—she being able to dissemble with the best, as Claire often told her admiringly. "We're well on our way now. Shouldn't be more than another six and a half hours before we reach our destination.—"
"Christ, as long as that?" The Rear-Admiral snorted crossly. "Fancy I'll go off t'my cabin an' sleep on the bunk there for a coupl'a hours, Robert."
"Good idea, Charles." The Air Commodore nodded, like a wise owl. "I'll stay here; got lots o'dam' work t'do on these bloody documents. Thank you, ma'am."
At least he thanked me, Gabrielle thought, as she carried on through the corridor behind the saloon. The next stop was the open bay, just past the wing-roots, where a window-like opening on either side of the plane offered access for the single Browning machine-gun positions. She had a word with the two gunners, going over their weapons in a quiet period between serving the officers, then carried on towards the rear of the Empire.
As she went on along the narrow corridor, past the series of small private cabins, Gabrielle paused to sniff the air; the smell of petrol not getting any lighter on the nose.
"God, hope the dam' stuff ain't leakin', anywhere."
The corridor came to an end, and from here Gabrielle had to negotiate a couple of small separate cargo compartments reaching to the absolute rear of the plane's interior. She clambered up another ladder in the first of these spaces, leading to the upper top deck where, beyond the furthest compartment, via a small door, lay the rear gun-turret at the end of a very small corridor which necessitated bending almost double; its glassed-in frame sitting immediately behind and underneath the vertical tailplane. This turret was completely enclosed, as it was electrically operated and swivelled to face any possible attacker—its rear exit-entry door being heavily armoured. So Gabrielle contented herself with crouching in the narrow space and banging with a gloved fist on the steel back.
"Hey, Gavin, y'hear me?"
"Yeah, what's happening? Bloody cold back here."
"Nuthin' happenin'." Gabrielle couldn't withhold a smile. "Hours t'go yet. Y'got your thermos o'coffee?"
"Yeah, but it'll be gone in another half hour." Gavin's faint voice sounded plaintive. "What then, ma'am."
"Then ya just hav'ta think o'home an' country, boyo. Be brave."
What Gavin replied to this quip was just about what Gabrielle expected. Then, grinning, she shuffled round in the confined dark space to retrace her steps.
Having managed to scramble back through into the first of the tight compartments leading from the rear of the plane, Gabrielle again descended the short ladder to the main upper deck. Once more at the heart of the plane's interior she reached another corridor which ran above the saloons and cabins. along past storage compartments and heading towards the bow of the aircraft. The corridor was almost completely dark, only a couple of feeble lightbulbs giving any sliver of illumination in the dim confines. All round Gabrielle could hear those multitudes of strange noises associated with a huge plane in flight. Groans from metal girders; cracks from the wooden components under strain; and various hisses and whistles from the machinery, valves, and pipes criss-crossing the floors, walls, and ceilings of every compartment within the aircraft. The exterior noise, from the four mighty Pegasus engines, was not to be sneezed at, either,—the very fabric of the plane vibrating in every atom of its being, and thereby within the bodies of those aboard, too.
Some way along the tight corridor Gabrielle suddenly stopped in her tracks; listened intently; then turned enquiringly to retrace her steps a few feet, before stopping to listen once again. A second time something within the heart of the ambient noise caught her attention; but finally, not being able to pinpoint the strange sound, she turned and resumed her walk along the corridor. Halfway along she came to the upper dorsal gun-turret, its glass dome with quadruple Browning machine-guns piercing the top of the plane. The gunner, once more, was simply standing head and shoulders inside the dome, booted feet on a slightly raised portion of the deck, half-unwound reams of ammunition belts writhing down each side of his legs and curling in garlands on the deck at his heavily booted feet. Gabrielle slapped his flying-suited leg and grinned up at the young man as she passed.
"How's things, Brian? Seen any interestin' bird-life?"
"Hell no, ma'am." Brian, too, was less than charmed with his daily chores. "Y'wouldn't be so perky if'n y'had t'stan' here all bloody day, wrestling with these 'ere bloody guns."
"Never mind, a Focke may happen along any minute an' give you some target practice."
"God, bloody 'ope not, ma'am."
Gabrielle ducked her head through another low connecting door, stumbled on along the corridor with its storage racks and cubicles on each side, descended three widely spaced iron-grid steps then, pushing the last inter-connecting door open with some effort and help from a booted foot, found herself back on the flight-deck once more with Jocelyn still hunched over his maps in his little alcove and the radio operator fiddling with a dial whilst listening intently to something coming over his airwaves—she had made it back to civilisation again. Opening the cockpit door in the partition she bent slightly and shuffled through with a nod to her paramour, who was still gripping the steering-column with more than necessary vigour.
"Hallo, missed ya." Claire visibly perked up as the small blonde struggled into her seat again. "Anythin' interestin' goin' on amongst our clients?"
"Huh, relax baby." Gabrielle, wriggling her legs into a more or less comfortable position, grinned across at her pilot. "Ease off on that wheel, won't ya; I can see the whites o'your knuckles as it is, even through your gloves."
"Uurgh." Ricky growled noncommittally, but favoured her lover with a broad grin anyway. "So, what's happening in the wide world back there? Anythin' exciting?"
"Nah, not a thing, all shipshape an' Bristol fashion." Gabrielle shook her head, fiddling with her intercom connection, then sniggered lightly. "Nuthin' that'll set the world back on its axis, darlin'; or is Axis a dirty word now?"
"Hah. Y'could be right there." Claire glanced at her instruments; took a slow panoramic view through the windscreen; and shrugged her shoulders. "Blue sky above; grey cloud below; us in the middle. There's a moral there somewhere, I bet."
"Dammed if I wan'na work it out." Gabrielle tried her patented fed-up expression, but found she was too fed-up to bring the necessary energy to it. "Can't wait t'get my feet back on the ground; I don't like Empires."
"God, Gabs, how often have I told ya not t'aggravate the transport, when we're in it,—she'll hear ya."
"Ricky," Gabrielle was up for a good argument. "If I thought for one minute that—"
"—er, ladies," Jocelyn's voice, after the first crackling of the re-connected intercom, came over their earphones with a questioning tone. "Can you look at your compass, please? An' tell me what it says our course is? Just checking."
Gabrielle quickly forgot her sarcasm, and sat up straight.
"Check the compass? It says, um, eighty West. Why?"
"That's what my main compass, back here, reads too." Jocelyn paused, then let go with the knock-out punch. "But I have a secondary compass I brought on board with me—always do, just for my own peace o'mind. It's reading eighty-four West, an' I know for a fact it's reading properly—set it, with another navigator, just yesterday. Our on-board compasses seem t'be four degrees out, for some reason."
"Four degrees?" Claire, too, began to take notice, frowning darkly as she leant forward to look down at the cockpit compass sitting horizontal just ahead of her right knee. "Jeesus, our compass here looks alright t'me. Y'sure they're playin' tricks, Jocelyn?"
The P4 compass at her knee showed, on its flat glass surface plate, the usual four wide transparent cross-hairs appearing as two wide bands with open centre, their thin white edges readily visible; the little red triangle with a broad black N bright at the bottom of the surrounding circular dial.
"Yes, ma'am, I'll vouch for my personal compass, a P6; it's smaller, but it's true for certain—our on-board compasses are definitely four degrees off."
"Four degrees?" Gabrielle, notepad on her lap, was deep in calculations. "God, that'll set us off-course by bloody miles. We'll miss the Azores by donkey's miles t'the East; headin' instead for somewhere close t'the Bermudas—if we could actually reach that far. Over t'the East of the Bermudas, in fact. The middle o'the Sargasso Sea, t'be exact—if y'want me t'be exact."
"Christ." Claire sat forward and began a close examination of the instrument panel. "Can y'see any reason for it, Gabs? Jocelyn, any explanation? Can we re-set the dam' things?"
"We can change course another four degrees East, ma'am." Jocelyn's voice held a thin note of worry. "Though whether the on-board compasses'll hold it is anyone's guess. If I might suggest, we ought t'go by my own compass from now on—I can guarantee it, for certain."
"Jeesus." Gabrielle shook her head. "Middle o'the Atlantic, an' our compasses fall sick. That's all we need."
"OK, Jocelyn, we'll go by your compass." Claire's voice had taken on the hard cold tone of authority. "Meanwhile we'll start reading our own, up here, with a variation of four more degrees East—got that, Gabrielle?"
"First, go back an' check Jocelyn's personal compass." Claire frowned as she contemplated the situation. "Check his against the navigator's compass in his alcove; then come back here an' check the readings against our compass here."
"Right, back in a jiffy."
It took only a couple of tense minutes for Gabrielle to hunch over the small compass sitting on the narrow table in the little semi-enclosed compartment where Jocelyn ruled in solitary splendour. The difference between its reading and the larger official compass fitted close to his right hand was clear to see. Gabrielle took note of the exact figures and returned to the cockpit, where she bent over the compass by Claire's knee scrutinizing it carefully.
"Jocelyn's P6 reads eighty-four point two West." She gave the results as she struggled back into her seat. "His P4, on the other hand, stubbornly reads eighty point three. Ours, here, reads eighty point five."
"What'll the difference make t'our course?"
"In the long run, some hundreds o'miles." Gabrielle glanced over her notebook calculations before going on. "We'll certainly miss the Azores by a huge amount—never know they're there, as we pass by at least a hundred miles t'their West. But we're not heading far enough West t'hit Bermuda, which'd be our next port o'call if we had enough fuel t'reach that far—which we definitely don't. Goin' in a straight line we'll fall out'ta the sky somewhere over t'the East of Bermuda—about dead centre in the Sargasso Sea."
There followed some minutes of strenuous mental activity while both women tried to come to terms with the situation. Gabrielle made rapid, but exact, calculations, nibbling the end of her pencil; while Claire gripped the steering-wheel with renewed purpose.
"Any idea what's causing the problem?" Claire broke the silence, glancing quickly over at her busy co-pilot. "I got nothin'."
"I been thinkin' about that." Gabrielle nodded slowly, her green eyes darting between Ricky and her notepad. "The mechanics' had'ta put in supplementary fuel tanks in this beast, for this trip. That's a lot of extra metal; I'm figuring it's affected the compasses that way. Maybe even the vast mass o'the fuel itself is havin' some sort'a strange influence."
"What about Jocelyn's P6?"
"It's smaller, that may be a reason; and it hasn't been exposed to the plane's magnetic influence to as great a degree, havin' only come aboard with him this mornin'."
"Yeah, I can see that." Claire nodded. "God, of all the places for this t'happen—the middle o'the bloody Atlantic. Nuthin' but open water for hundreds o'miles in every direction. Can we navigate by the sun?"
"Har. Maybe you can, but I can't; haven't the foggiest." Gabrielle snorted derisively. "This ain't a pirate ship in the Caribbean, y'know."
"Can y'navigate by takin' readings from the Sun's position?" Ricky sounded as if she hardly thought it likely.
There was a silence for a few seconds, finally broken by the refined accent of the young man.
"No, ma'am, I can't. Wouldn't have the first idea how to; never been trained for that."
Another silence reigned for a while in the cockpit; only the throbbing of the mighty Pegasus engines, drinking fuel as if they were patrons in a Public House approaching closing-time, filled the air.
"The thought occurs t'me." Claire looked over at the blonde by her side in some trepidation. "What about the bigwigs? What d'we tell them? And when?"
"Oh God, complications, complications." Gabrielle sat back and ran a heavily gloved finger over her chin while she contemplated the matter. "Well, well, let's see, uum. OK, this's how it'll hav'ta go—we corral the Air Commodore somewhere private, an' break the good news there; hopin', o'course, his only reply isn't t'simply have an apoplectic fit an' leave us in the lurch."
"Suppose that's my baby, eh?"
"Blondie, y'never said a truer word—go to it. I love ya."
Gabrielle had given up saluting, as an unnecessary and useless activity. The fact that virtually every other uniformed officer aboard technically outranked her made continually saluting anyone on meeting them in the Empire's confined interior a ridiculous matter; the officers themselves mutually agreeing by default. Now the blonde co-pilot stood in the main saloon, regarding the Air Commodore with a curious nervousness.
"—er, sir, I need to speak with you on an urgent matter, t'do with our present flight. It won't wait."
Not being a fool the RAF officer gave the short woman in her bulky flying-suit a sharp glance; realised she had some worryingly important matter on her mind; and waved his adjutant out of the saloon, the door closing behind the young man—leaving the two alone.
"Well, ma'am, what can I do for you?" The Air Commodore was, by nature, quite a cheeerful type, and hadn't taken Gabrielle's previous lecture to heart. "Something t'do with the old crate, perhaps? The engines seem t'be running smoothly enough."
"The engines are fine, sir." Gabrielle took a deep breath and launched out on the state of play as they spoke. "But the aircraft's compasses have given up the ghost. For the rest of our trip they'll be about as much use directin' us as an out of date Baedeker."
Over the next few minutes Gabrielle made the RAF officer au fait with all the details of the situation, leaving nothing out. Afterwards he sat, fiddling with a loose document in front of him, giving the matter all his attention. Finally he looked up at Gabrielle, a serious expression on his face.
"The trouble here as, of course, you already realise is the top secret nature of our present, er, expedition." He sat back with a sigh. "We can't radio for assistance from anyone—that'd simply give our game away t'all and sundry. I think I'm right in saying there are no landmarks, in the way of islands, on our course that might act as guides?"
"No, sir, nothing at all."
"Then we can only carry on as we are." He regarded Gabrielle from under bushy brows. "This navigator chappie, with his personal compass—sounds a sort'a careful fella—is his instrument reliable, do you suppose?"
"We can only hope so, sir." Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. "It's the only active compass we have—that's, at least, giving what we fervently hope is a true reading."
"Mmmph. Well, carry on with it as you are. There seems nothing else to do." He started shuffling together the documents on the table in front of him. "Without any viable sightings we'll only know what's what when we reach the Azores—or not, as the case unfolds. Good luck, Flying-Officer; keep me informed."
"Does that sound like a blank cheque, t'do as we please?" Claire eyed her companion warily, on Gabrielle's return. "So, what he's sayin' is, he hasn't the faintest idea what t'do either?"
"That's about it, sunshine." Gabrielle, now re-seated, nodded. "We're on our own; no-one else, only us."
"Is it right, there ain't any landmarks down there in the briny; on our course, anyway?"
"Far as I can tell from scrutinising the chart—an' baby, I've scrutinised it t'within a millimetre of it's dam' life over the last twenty minutes—there's nuthin' but water in every direction." Claire grunted despondently. "The only way we'll know if we're on course is if we hit the Azores as planned. If not, well, we'll just keep flying south-west till we run out'ta fuel."
During this outburst Gabrielle had been scribbling in her notebook, totting up figures in columns. Now she shared the result with her unhappy pilot.
"From what I've worked out, if we do miss the bloody Azores, we can fly on for another two hours." She shrugged deep inside her flying-jacket. "Perhaps a trifle longer, but not much."
"Where'd that be likely t'leave us?"
"Oh, like I said, somewhere in the heart of the Sargasso Sea. Nowhere near Bermuda though, put your mind at rest there, ducks."
"There's nuthin' in that sea, as I recall, but seaweed an' assorted rubbish." Claire frowned in concentration. "No help t'us, I'm afraid. What if we call it a day right now? Can we divert an' reach—oh, I don't know, Portugal, or Spain, maybe?"
Gabrielle hunched over her notebook again, scribbling rapidly with her pencil. Every now and then she stopped to examine her results, ponder on them, then start calculating once more. Finally she sat back and sighed.
"OK, from what I can figure, with the total amount of fuel we should still have, and the relative distances, we can make it to the Azores if we carry on as we are—relying on Jocelyn's compass. But by diverting east we can easily reach either Corunna, in Spain; or Lisbon, Portugal, a little further south. We have enough fuel to make either with ease. If we divert somewhere in the next hour, anyway."
"What's our point of no return, on this present course?"
"Say, another hour an' twenty minutes—another two hundred and forty miles, give or take."
"And Jocelyn's small P6 compass is our only help?"
"Right, we divert—now. Make a new course for Corunna, Spain, quick as you like." Claire fiddled with her intercom. "Jocelyn? Y'there?"
"Yeah, ma'am, any news?"
"We're diverting—giving up the Azores as a lost cause—we can't chance these bigwigs aboard to such a dicey procedure." Claire looked acrosss at Gabrielle. "Gabrielle's working out a course for Corunna, Spain—if you do likewise she'll come through an' compare notes, then we make the course change. We're still working by your P6, remember?"
"OK, ma'am, I'll get right on it, out."
"What? What? I'm kind'a busy, lover."
"What about Gib?"
"Gibraltar." Gabrielle had ducked her head to resume her calculations. After a pause she came back up for air. "From here, with the fuel we have, I figure we can reach Gib with maybe an hour's flying time in hand. But we got'ta make this course change right now—I mean, right now."
"Jocelyn, y'still there? Joce—"
"Change o'plan; change o'course. Forget bloody Corunna—we're heading for Gibraltar, right now. I'm changing course full East; you an' Gabrielle can bring me up t'speed on the exact course as an' when, but make it snappy."
Claire leaned forward, took the steering-column in hand, and started to bank, none too gently, over to the East.
"Hope this sudden change o'course doesn't fling the bigwigs off their bar-stools." The black-haired warrior still had a joke in her. "Think you'll have'ta go back an' soothe ruffled feathers, when you've made those calculations, Gabs?"
"I'm on it, sis, I'm on it."
A bare few minutes later Gabrielle rose and disconnected herself, for the umpteenth time, from the coils of her seat—safety-belt, oxygen mask, intercom. Nodding to Claire she opened the partition door and went back to Jocelyn's dark domain. He sat on the port side, immediately behind Claire's pilot's position, but separated by a relatively solid dividing screen; his only companion the radio-operator opposite. The rest of the space was quite wide, if not particularly well lit, being the start of the upper-deck corridor. As Gabrielle was turning to put a hand on the navigator's shoulder she suddenly froze in position, ears cocked listening intently. There was a short pause, then whatever noise had first caught her attention was repeated, making her jump nervously. After another minute of tense waiting it became obvious nothing further was going to take place. Gabrielle turned, rather hesitantly, and directed her next question to the hunched form of the young man, still busy with his calculations.
"You hear that, Jocelyn?"
"Hear what, ma'am?"
"That—that sort'a low growling sound—didn't you hear? A sort'a bass screeching noise, like metal grinding." Gabrielle glanced down the dark tunnel of the corridor, but without seeing anything to her satisfaction. "You didn't hear anything?"
"No, ma'am, sorry. Should I have?"
"No, no, it's OK. Robert, you hear anythin'? Robert? Rob—"
"He's in his own little world, ma'am, with those heavy radio earphones of his. Even I have'ta kick his shin t'get attention. He didn't hear anythin' either, I'm betting."
"Humph, that's helpful." Gabrielle growled unhappily, then shrugged. "OK, here's my course calculations. Check 'em, then give us a tinkle in the cabin, an' Ricky'll change to your co-ordinates. I'm going back t'the cockpit for a mo'."
"Back already, Gabs?" Ricky gave her co-pilot a curious look as Gabrielle, not sitting but leaning with a hand on the top edge of Ricky's seat, gazed down at her. "Somethin' up?"
"Ricky, a little while ago, that first time I did the rounds of the plane, y'recall?"
"Yeah, what about it? Did ya leave something out'ta your report, or what?"
"Well, that first time, in the upper deck corridor just behind the dorsal gun-turret, I heard a strange sound." Gabrielle frowned as she recalled the incident. "Like metal grinding, somewhere in the body o'the beast. Couldn't place it at the time."
"Sure it wasn't one o'those young Lieutenants messing about?" Ricky raised a brow enquiringly. "Just the sort of lark they'd get up to, silly b-gg-rs."
"No, it was definitely metal, meb'be bracing-girders or the like; I heard it distinctly." Gabrielle shook her head. "And just now, less than two minutes ago, standin' beside Jocelyn an' the radio boyo out there, I heard the same metallic screeching again. Definitely somewhere down the length of the upper deck corridor."
For a few seconds Ricky contemplated her blonde companion, then brought a hand up to her throat to switch the intercom on.
"Listen up everybody who's on this thing." She spoke curtly and with a hard edge to her voice. "Get off the line, all of ya—except for Gavin in the dorsal gun, I wan'na private chat with him. So the rest of ya clear off the air for five minutes. Oh, by the way, we're now headin' for Gib; changed our minds about goin', er, elsewhere. Gavin, ya there?"
"Yes, ma'am, what's up?" Gavin's voice sounded faintly, from a great distance. "If you want me to come forward it'll maybe take me some time—I'm sort'a coiled up in bloody yards o'ammunition belts back here."
"Gavin, forget the belts, how're things with ya at the moment? Anything out'ta the ordinary happenin' anywhere near ya?"
There was a significant pause, while the harassed gunner took in the import of this question.
"What d'you mean, ma'am?" Gavin now sounded puzzled. "I've just tried t'connect two belts of .303 together, an' it wasn't what you'd call a success. May take me quarter an hour t' clear things up. Is that what you mean?"
"No, no." Ricky shrugged her shoulders purposefully, and took the bull by the horns. "Any, er, strange noises—er, rackets y'can't account for, or anythin' o'that sort in the last hour or so?"
"What, ma'am?" Both women could hear the gunner laughing faintly. "You mean like a ghostie treading the corridors? I don't think so, ma'am. I assure you, ma'am, if I'd heard a ghost, or any noise out'ta the ordinary anywhere within a mile o'me I'd'a let you know without hesitation. No, ma'am, nuthin' o'that sort's let itself rip round these parts lately. The only thing that's frightening me are these bloody ammo belts; loose rounds are falling all over the deck in every bloody direction."
"OK, Gavin, OK."
Gabrielle looked at Claire; Claire returned the compliment, trying to seem as non-commital as possible; but Gabrielle noticed the gleam in her dark blue eyes, and took umbrage anyway.
"No, madam, I am not losing my marbles." The blonde curled her lips in an angry sneer. "I did hear somethin', say what you like. I know what I heard."
"Well," Claire tried to build bridges. "when we reach Gib, an' everyone decants themselves from this wreck, we can get the fitters an' mechanics t'go over the beast with a fine–tooth comb—how does that suit? Those extra heavy fuel tanks may be playin' silly beggars with the framing in some way, perhaps."
"Yeah, meb'be. It'll have t'do. Thanks, sis."
"Anythin' for ya; you know that." Claire reached out to put a gloved hand on Gabrielle's waist; or as much as she could reach of it hidden under the thick flying-jacket. "I'm always here for ya. So, y'gon'na go an' inform the uniforms about our latest change of plan?"
"Suppose I better, maybe stop some heart-attacks." Gabrielle smiled, and extended her own gloved hand to delicately touch Claire's face-mask. "Love you, babe."
The officers, as was only to be expected, were not particularly overwhelmed with joy at the news they would not, on this trip, be arriving at the Azores. However order was restored pretty quickly, discipline showing its strengths, and they all settled down in the main saloon to mull over what they could do to escape from the confines of Gib as soon after arrival as possible. Claire and Gabrielle, now knowing they would certainly reach somewhere viable in Europe instead of ditching in the Sargasso Sea, focussed on their probable course co-ordinates, and began to take bets between themselves and Jocelyn as to just how accurate his compass would turn out to be. Gabrielle considered that if they hit any part at all of Portugal or Spain it would be a win; while Jocelyn remained adamant his P6 would take them to the foot of the Rock without trouble; Claire confined herself to a two-way bet on either Gib, or somewhere in the north of Morocco; which simply sent Gabrielle into waves of laughter at her naivety.
In the actual run of events the Rock came up trumps; Gabrielle sighting its peak on the horizon well ahead of Claire; they both getting on the intercom to compliment Jocelyn on his wonderful P6. The landing, however, had its dicey moments.
"What the f-ck?" Claire was not amused, as she peered ahead through the windscreen. "Two, two battleships—and a bloody horde o'cruisers. There's no bloody where t'ditch—an' we ain't got wheels t'land this monster on terra-bloody-firma."
"Radio Control on the Rock says who the bloody Hell are we; have we landing permission; and where the Hell d'we expect t'land, anyway?" Robert, waking up and joining public society for the first time on the trip, appeared on the crackly intercom to give the pilots the good news. "They ain't happy. I did give them all the requisite code-words and whatnot—don't see what they're grumping about, myself."
"Hah." Claire shook her head sadly. "Y'can never please these sort'a people. What about that stretch there? See it, Gabs, between the starboard battleship and the first ship of the second line of cruisers? I think there's just enough room t'do it."
The officers had disembarked; their entourages had gone with them; the extra crew-members had disappeared in a couple of Army trucks heading for barracks unknown; while Claire and Gabrielle remained standing at the lower entry-port of the Empire flying-boat Caerus, sitting calmly on the water amongst the giant warships under the shadow of the Rock. Over the stretch of blue sea they were watching a distant launch heading their way which would take them, in turn, to dry land.
"Well, we're here, that's something." Gabrielle sighed in relief.
"It ain't the Azores, mind you," Claire curled a dismissive lip. "but then, who cares, I'm just glad we reached anywhere at all. Imagine all our compasses goin' AWOL together. It ain't natural."
"At one point I wa—"
From somewhere in the dark interior of the massive flying-boat there came faintly but distinctly to the ears of the two women the faraway echoing sound of metal grinding against metal, long and sustained; then it lessened, to finally disappear as if having come from far away; then all was silence again.
Gabrielle looked at Claire with a raised eyebrow, green eyes glowing with assurance.
"Well, don't tell me you didn't hear that, sis."
Claire took a step back into the dim entry compartment, listened for a few seconds, then rejoined her companion at the open door.
"Y'know, I can see the other launch approachin' over there a'ways, with the mechanics t'give the old boat the once over." She shrugged in as innocent a manner as she could contrive at short notice. "Think I'll leave it t'them. Must be the new fuel tanks, like you said—must be. If they report any funny goin's on, then we'll see what's what."
"An' if they don't, darlin'?"
"It'll just give us all the more spare time to enjoy our stay in that luxurious hotel the Base Commander's set us up in over in the town."
"Y'certainly know which side your bread's buttered, I'll give ya that, lover." Gabrielle laughed, and put an arm through Claire's. "Come on, let's jump in our launch together, here it comes,—I don't want t'lose contact with you for a single moment in the next two days."
As the launch came up to attach itself to the open entry-port and Claire, on her part, lent her strong arm to make sure her lover made the jump successfully, Gabrielle took one last glance over her shoulder at the dark interior of the massive flying-boat.
"Looks, maybe, as if Caerus triumphs in the end, after all."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.